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In picking new police commissioner, Mayor Jim Kenney faces defining choice

Appointing a police commissioner can be a legacy-defining choice for a mayor. Kenney must do so now amid turmoil over criminal justice reform, sexual harassment complaints, and other hot-button issues.

Mayor Jim Kenney (left) and new acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter arrive for a news conference regarding the resignation of former Commissioner Richard Ross.
Mayor Jim Kenney (left) and new acting Police Commissioner Christine Coulter arrive for a news conference regarding the resignation of former Commissioner Richard Ross.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

In normal times, choosing a police commissioner is one of the most significant and complex decisions a mayor makes. Mayor Jim Kenney’s search for a permanent replacement for Richard Ross does not come during normal times.

The district attorney is warring with the police union. Thirteen officers have been fired for inappropriate social media posts. Others have been lionized for their roles in last week’s standoff with a gunman in Tioga. And longstanding issues with handling sexual harassment complaints in the department have reached the top brass, costing Ross his job this week.

In choosing the person who will likely be the most visible city official aside from himself, Kenney must navigate opposing interests not only within the law enforcement community but also within his political base, a coalition of progressives who support reforms like lowering incarceration rates and older, white South Philadelphia voters who favor a law-and-order approach.

“We’re looking broadly, local and national, internal and external,” Kenney said at a City Hall news conference Wednesday. “We’re seeking a commissioner who can garner the respect of the rank and file and with the community, just as Richard Ross did. Someone who is committed to building a stronger department, bolstering morale, and addressing workplace challenges that have existed within law enforcement for some time.”

» READ MORE: ‘I have never sought retribution,’ Ex-Commissioner Ross says

Richardson Dilworth, director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, said it may be difficult for Kenney to find someone who can satisfy both his younger liberal backers and the voters who associate him with politicians like his old mentor, the former South Philadelphia power broker and ex-state senator Vince Fumo.

“He’s a weird kind of progressive. He’s a former Fumocrat progressive, and there’s a certain extent to which he still depends on that Fumocrat base, and certainly police are part of that,” Dilworth said. “More than any other progressive mayor, he’s somewhat more conflicted on that front in terms of who he might be interested in selecting."

That dynamic could play out in how the next commissioner interacts with District Attorney Larry Krasner, an outspoken and often combative advocate for criminal justice reform who has tussled with the police union, the state attorney general, and the top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia. Picking a commissioner too cozy with Krasner could alienate Kenney’s traditional South Philly base, while appointing someone seen as a roadblock to reform could cost him progressive support.

“He will be concerned about not looking like he’s trying to set up an antagonistic dynamic between the commissioner and the district attorney,” said Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple University’s Institute for Public Affairs. “They have to work together in the end, and even if it weren’t just a political base issue for the mayor, there’s not much advantage in him having conflict between those two offices.”

» DOCUMENT: Read the full complaint that led to Commissioner Ross’ ouster

Kenney on Wednesday said finding a candidate who supports criminal justice reforms will be a priority.

“That will be part of the decision-making process. Obviously change is difficult, when it’s structural change,” he said. “It’s hard to change people’s views on things but you have to be willing to try to explain to people why we need to go in the right direction, why locking everyone up doesn’t always work and hasn’t worked.”

How aggressively the next commissioner pursues criminal justice reform is one of the questions Kenney must weigh. Should the next commissioner be a woman, given the department’s alleged culture of tolerating sexual harassment and the circumstances of Ross’ departure? (Kenney tapped a deputy commissioner, Christine Coulter, to be the acting commissioner.) Should Kenney choose an African American or Latino commissioner to help improve relations with those communities? Should the person come from inside the department or from elsewhere?

The answer to the last question, McLaughlin said, could send a message about how the mayor views the department.

“The decision has to do with whether the mayor has a belief that the department needs a fresh look from the outside, maybe from incidents that indicate, at least to the mayor, the department may need some shaking up,” said McLaughlin, who was an adviser to Mayor William J. Green III and worked for three other administrations as a lobbyist for the city. “Obviously the police force is more comfortable with an insider. It’s somebody they know and is familiar with their local culture in their department. So reform mayors tend to go outside."

He noted that Mayor John F. Street tapped an insider, Sylvester M. Johnson, to lead the department, while his successor, Michael Nutter, who had run on a reform platform, tapped an outsider, Charles H. Ramsey. Ross served as Ramsey’s top deputy before taking over the department in 2016.

Kenney on Wednesday did not indicate he was seeking a significant change in direction for the department.

“I don’t want to forget all of the positive things that have happened during [Ross’] 3½ years," Kenney said. “It’s not a happy day. I think he did a stellar job.”

Former City Councilman George Burrell, who served as an aide to Street, said Kenney should look for a commissioner who will be able to improve relations between police and minority communities.

“The most important issue is going to be, what are police-community relations going to be? How are you going to address that issue?” Burrell said. “The African American community has a kind of dual perspective on this. We want law enforcement like everyone else, but we want that law enforcement to be fairly delivered, and we see too many young people going to jail and being there longer than they should, with limited prospects when they came out.”

Bridging that divide, Burell said, will lead to greater buy-in from minority communities on other problems. “If you don’t do that, it’s going to be hard to address other issues, whether they’re sex-related, whether they’re violence-related, whether they’re mass shooting-related," he said.

Kenney said diversity will factor into his decision.

“Obviously I am acutely aware of the fact that I am a white male, and I do have concerns about how the optics of diversity need to be maintained,” Kenney said. “We need to make sure that we have a good pool of people, as diverse a pool of people as possible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified former police commissioner Sylvester Johnson.